Perks of the Undead: Zombie Cinema and Public Health Awareness

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The 2013 film World War Z starts with a family stuck in traffic, witnessing in abject horror as their city is overrun by bloody, gory zombies. The plot begins similarly in other zombie movies: South Korean horror flick Train to Busan (2016) begins as a father boards a train with his young daughter, where a woman turned zombie begins to spread the contagion throughout the passengers. Meanwhile, the Spanish found footage film REC (2007) follows the journey of a reporter and her cameraman in a quarantined apartment complex, where the residents get infected one by one with a zombie-like virus. This is a common and global theme in pandemic horror cinema; your normal everyday person or family is going about their day, when a catastrophic turn of events turns their whole world upside down. Chaos and panic ensue as societal structures disseminate, hordes of nameless and faceless zombies chasing the ever diminishing and unprepared healthy population. While for many of us, zombie movies are just a Friday night source of entertainment, their themes reflect prominent societal concerns. In particular, they are reflective of the culture of fear that can arise regarding the issue of disease and its epidemiology. Although much of the plot in such films is fictitious, the depiction of the horrors of a mass mortality event, the need to instigate disease control measures, and the importance of investigating transmission and establishing patient zero are all genuine concerns that can be applied to real-life viral outbreaks (Kendel, 2019). Such movies may not be wholly accurate about disease transmission, for example in World War Z, it takes a mere unrealistic 12 seconds for the infection to take hold (Fox, 2013). They may also incorporate far fetched plot devices, such as the viral mutation which shifts bloodborne to airborne transmission in movies like I am Legend and Outbreak. However, at the same time they get much right too, such as depiction of the mode of transmission, manifestation of physical symptoms and protective practices to prevent the spread of infection. Beyond scientific inaccuracies, zombie movies are very accurate in portraying sociological consequences of epidemics, such as racial paranoia where minority groups often face the blame for being the source of outbreaks (Kendal, 2019). Some other key examples include the representation of travel restrictions and even the slow response from the international community to develop a coordinated strategy, which can be correlated to real life examples like that of the Ebola outbreak of 2014. These parallels between zombie movies and infectious diseases enable it to be an effective surrogate for depictions of an epidemic. The popularity of zombies in mainstream media, combined with the pedagogical nature of popular culture, signifies their utility in improving public health awareness and knowledge. This is something that has already been capitalized on by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has multiple pages on their website outlining measures for dealing with a zombie apocalypse (Nasiruddin, 2013). Furthermore, an op-ed piece on the bioethics bulletin of John Hopkins University discusses some of the ethical guidelines that should be followed in the case of a zombie apocalypse (O’Connor, 2013). Even a 2011 article in the Journal of Clinical Nursing writes about the best practices for avoiding Solanum infection, the contagious virus from The Zombie Survival Guide (Stanley, 2012). While obviously these organizations are not trying to push the narrative that a zombie apocalypse is a real, impending possibility, the use of zombies as a conduit to increase disaster preparedness in the general population seems to be an effective measure. For example, while a typical CDC blog post receives about 1000 hits, their blog post about zombie preparedness hit a peak 30,000 hits after which the server crashed (Good, 2011). Although this is not the most conventional method for raising awareness, the guidelines mentioned for a zombie apocalypse are applicable to any kind of pandemic.Thus, such strategies can work to prevent scenarios like those that arise in the aforementioned movies, where mass hysteria and unpreparedness result in increased casualties. Zombie films have provided us with an opportunity to work through anxieties regarding epidemics in a non-threatening, fictional space. For more than 80 years filmmakers and writers have used the undead as a metaphor for much deeper fears regarding public health crises and mass contagion. So why not public health agencies too? If anything, future strategies by such organizations could incorporate more of popular culture when raising awareness. After all, if there is anything that can be learned from the use of zombie cinema in public health awareness, it is that using topics of widespread interest as an educational lens is highly effective.

Image by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

Citations:

Fox, M. (2013, June 21). What ‘World War Z’ gets right – and wrong – about viruses. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/healthmain/what-world-war-z-gets-right-wrong- about-viruses-6C10411719 Good C. (2011). Why Did the CDC Develop a Plan for a Zombie Apocalypse? The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/ why-did-the-cdc-develop-a-plan-for-a-zombie-apocalypse/239246/

Kendal E. (2019, January 19) Public health crises in popular media: how viral outbreak films affect the public’s health literacy. Medical Humanities. doi: 10.1136/medhum-2018-011446

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